Bad Science Journalism: “Why having ‘blonde’ genes will not make you ditzy”
This week, researchers at Stanford released a study about finding the genetic basis of blonde hair .in Northern Europeans. From the press release:
The researchers found that the blond hair commonly seen in Northern Europeans is caused by a single change in the DNA that regulates the expression of a gene that encodes a protein called KITLG, also known as stem cell factor. This change affects how much KITLG is expressed in the hair follicles without changing how it’s expressed in the rest of the body. Introducing the change into normally brown-haired laboratory mice yields an animal with a decidedly lighter coat — not quite Norma Jeane to Marilyn Monroe, but significant nonetheless.
The paper is published in Nature Genetics (behind a paywall, but even if you can’t access the full paper, you can see the abstract and the figures here). As you can see in Figure 5, the control mouse is on the right, and when the researchers manipulated the regulatory region of KITLG and reduced expression, the mouse’s fur became slightly blonder (middle mouse). And predictably, when they increased expression of KITLG, the mouse’s fur became slightly darker (right mouse). As they mention in the press release, and as you can see for yourself, it’s a very subtle change in color (but no less an important finding).
I’m not going to go through the paper and analyze the findings. Rather, I’m going to go over one of the “news” articles that was in my daily feed. The New York Daily News interpreted this study as:
Researchers discover that being blond does not make people ditzy
Stanford University scientists revealed that hair color does not affect other genetic traits, proving that blonds are not naturally scatter-brained and redheads are not all fiery.
Wait wait wait…are they saying that blonde jokes aren’t true??? (You can see by the number of question marks that I’ve chosen to use that I’m seriously confused about this issue.) What about the ones with the talking animals in bars? Are those still real? Can a [ethnic stereotype] actually change a lightbulb by themselves? IS ANYTHING BELIEVABLE ANYMORE???
The NY Daily News article relies heavily on the usage of blonde jokes to get its point across. Even the picture associated with the article is captioned, “This woman may or may not be a little ditzy, but scientists have proven that it isn’t simply a result of her hair color.” The main message here is: never pose for stock photos if you are blonde or else your face may be used by a lazy science “journalist” to make bad jokes.
By the way, the paper does not actually discuss redheads not having a “fiery” gene, so that one is still totally up in the air. Get on that, scientists! Hey, while you’re in the lab, can you also tell me if the carpet matches the curtains?
Before you say “The NY Daily News is a tabloid!” you should know that The Telegraph reported this with basically the same headline:
The Telegraph‘s article is better than NY Daily News, but the fact that this passes for science journalism is ridiculous:
But blondes should take heart. Scientists have discovered that hair colour is determined by a single letter of the genetic code – and it is completely unrelated to any other inherited trait.
It means that being blonde has no link to either intelligence or being gregarious.
I would be surprised if the actual research paper touched on the personality or “ditziness” of the mice. Generally, scientists are more concerned that futzing with genes will result in birth defects or other mutations not conducive to life, not necessarily how a mouse would perform in pub trivia.
Before I pass all the blame to the “science” journalists, I was reading through the (mostly very good) press release and found this at the end:
[Dr. Kingsley] added: “It’s clear that this hair color change is occurring through a regulatory mechanism that operates only in the hair. This isn’t something that also affects other traits, like intelligence or personality. The change that causes blond hair is, literally, only skin deep.”
(Emphasis mine.) Gee, why would you even mention that hair color doesn’t affect two random traits like intelligence or personality? Because of blonde jokes? Seriously? No wonder the science journalists went in that direction, even the damn researcher can’t stop himself from making a blonde joke reference. I get it, he was probably trying to make the findings more relatable to the general public. And people who write press releases want to make them “sexy” so that people will read them. But researchers need to understand that even offhand comments can affect what some journalists choose to report on. Instead of going over the more interesting parts of the paper, the articles quoted above went in a “blondes aren’t ditzy!” direction. (I want to note that not all science journalists went in this direction, thank goodness.)
Now that we have scientifically “proven” that blondes aren’t ditzy, will scientists answer questions like: do blondes actually have more fun? Do gentlemen prefer them? Are women genetically inclined to like shoes? If researchers even come close to answering these burning questions, you can bet that the best and brightest science journalists will be there to report on it.
And this explains why I never get any of my Science information from daily newspapers.
Ughh! I guess at least this drivel should provide fodder to refute blonde jokes? I wonder if journalists would have made any “ditzy” references had Dr. Kingsley not said that in the press release. Also, those diamonds are pretty. I have to add, I always feel I come off as ditzy in person, and as you can see, my hair is black :/
Yeah, one aticle did mention not being able to have “blonde moments” anymore, as if that was a real thing.
Also? A lot of blonde jokes are horrible and misogynist.
In defense of Dr. Kingsley, his other comments in the press release emphasized that the gene being controlled by this polymorphism is a fundamental regulatory gene with effects all over the body. So it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that the polymorphism could have other effects than just affecting hair color — but it seems that it doesn’t, probably because that part of the regulatory sequence is only active in the skin. He may have made that comment explicitly to head off suggestions that the “blonde gene” also has effects on intelligence or personality, or been responding to a question from the PR person on that topic. Or he may have made the comment because finding that although a gene may play a role in many different biological processes, mutations in its regulatory sequence can have very specific, targeted effects on the phenotype is actually really interesting and important for understanding both evolution and development, and much more fundamental than just understanding the genetics of human hair color, although this point is certainly not conveyed in the press release. This seems to me like a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation for the researchers; the “journalists” were probably going to find a way to make their dumb blonde jokes no matter what.
Yes, but his comments about intelligence and personality made it easier for the journalists to use similar phrasing in their articles. The journalists now have a source to point to when you accuse them of linking intelligence to hair color because of blonde jokes.
I agree. All I mean to say is that while it’s possible he intended that statement to be an oblique reference to blonde jokes, it’s also possible that it had nothing to do with blonde jokes — there is actually an important scientific point being referenced in that sentence as well. So to me at least, “even the damn researcher can’t stop himself from making a blonde joke reference” seems like an uncharitable reading. I’ll admit I could be being naive.
Anyway, sorry to nitpick when I agree with your larger point: “researchers need to understand that even offhand comments can affect what some journalists choose to report on” is exactly right! Part of my response is probably because I’m trying to kick off a research career right now myself, in a field that tends to get a lot of media attention, and thus distortion. And even though I recognize the importance of careful communication with journalists, I can easily imagine myself in Dr. Kingsley’s position in a couple of years (if all goes well!), trying to explain the significance of a study to a journalist and saying something that, once pulled out of context, sounds like a simplistic attempt at sensationalization, or worse. I was once interviewed by a reporter for something totally unrelated to science, and after speaking with her for over thirty minutes while trying to communicate some nuanced ideas, in the end she used only about two or three sentences which, out of context, were utterly trite and simplistic. (It didn’t help that I was conflicted about talking to her at all, and in the end decided to only because I was upset with the way the media were reporting on the event, and felt it was important that the nuanced perpective be shared. Oh well.) It really drove home to me that, when you’re relying on someone else to tell your story for you, you’re really utterly at their mercy: they will use your words to tell the story they want to tell, and there’s practically nothing you can do about it.
The press release is indeed mostly good but I would not be surprised if the last quote had been inserted purposefully to generate coverage, i.e. any kind of coverage, e.g. precisely the coverage it got [I realize I am much less charitable than biogeo, but a quote in a press release is not an off hand comment, it is something which has been discussed with the press team, possibly even suggested by the press team].
In another context (related to nanobio), I discussed a similar example last week where UoMichigan started a press release by “Inspired by fictional cyborgs like Terminator…” on my blog. You don’t need to read the rest of the press release to guess the kind of coverage it got (and the kind of pictures used to illustrate this). The problems run deep. Not just isolated science journalists doing mistakes or PR department overdoing it. It is also about incentives (funding, careers, etc), positive results bias & hype all having an effect on the kind of science we do, how we understand it and how we communicate it.
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